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In this report

Best-bet mountain bikes for trail riding

Reviewers say trail bikes are great all-around mountain bikes that are ideal for the average rider. They perform well on climbs and descents, thanks to an average of 5 inches of travel that smoothes the ride over obstacles. Trail-oriented mountain bikes come at a variety of price points, but the trail bikes that earn the best reviews average around $2,500. At this price, these bikes are designed for mountain bikers who are ready to graduate from an entry-level or budget mountain bike to something more specialized.

In this category, the Trek Fuel EX 8 (MSRP: $2,470) earns more recommendations than any other mountain bike. Reviewers say it is a great all-around bike -- it can handle a wide variety of terrain and excels at both climbing and descents. The Trek Fuel EX 8 is a full-suspension mountain bike, so it has 4.7 inches of travel on the front and rear wheels. It sports Trek's Alpha Red aluminum frame with Shimano SLX shifters and derailleurs, Avid Elixir 5 hydraulic disc brakes, Bontrager Duster rims and Bontrager XR3 Expert tires. The Trek Fuel EX 8 comes in five sizes and four sizes in a women's version, the Trek Fuel EX 8 WSD (MSRP: $2,470). The women's version has nearly identical components, although it is outfitted with a female-specific saddle and adjustable-reach brake levers. Trek frames are covered by a limited lifetime warranty.

The Trek Fuel EX 8, which won the Trail Bike of the Year award from Britain's What Mountain Bike in 2010, continues to earn excellent reviews from a variety of sources. Testers say the frame is stiff with excellent handling, making for a bike that performs just as well on rough downhills as it does on narrow singletrack trails. Experts also rave about the suspension. "While 'bottomless' is a pretty big cliché in terms of shock description, nothing fits the combination of the consistently controlled shock stroke and the Full Floater shock mount found on the EX8 better," says Guy Kesteven at BikeRadar.com. Mark Eller, a tester for Men's Journal, agrees. "It delivers an incredibly consistent feel," he says. "The Trek handles great at all speeds."

Although the Trek Fuel EX 8 costs thousands of dollars, many experts believe it's a good value, with a solid selection of components for the price. "It's also hard to believe that this bike retails for $2,300," says Vernon Felton at Bike magazine. "The components here could easily roost on a bike selling for a thousand bucks more." User reviews are also very positive. Between MTBR.com and Buzzillions.com, more than 200 owners comment on the Trek Fuel EX 8. Although some of these reviews refer to prior model years, most owners rave about the confidence-inspiring brakes, plush suspension and responsive handling.

Downsides are few, but even the much-raved-about Trek Fuel EX 8 isn't perfect. Editors at Mountain Bike Action say the "very conservative cross-country bike feel" won't appeal to everyone, especially aggressive riders who frequent technical terrain. Even though the tires have been upgraded from the 2010 model, we still saw a number of complaints from riders at MTBR.com and SingleTracks.com who say the new tires do a good job on hard-dirt trails, but don't provide enough traction on technical turns or muddy trails.

While it can't quite match the enthusiasm garnered by the Trek Fuel EX 8, the Giant Trance X series is another favorite of trail riders. The top-of-the-line Giant Trance X1 (MSRP: $3,850) garners the most recommendations for its excellent suspension and admirable climbing performance. The aluminum frame with nearly 5 inches of suspension is available in four sizes, and it comes with a Fox 32 F125RL fork. The Giant Trance X1 is outfitted with mainly Shimano Deore XT components, with the exception of a Shimano SLX front derailleur and a Shimano Deore XT Shadow derailleur in the rear. The frame is covered by a lifetime warranty.

Elevation Outdoors magazine recommends the Giant Trance X1 for those who ride technical terrain, as the bike speeds down tricky descents with ease. Its climbing performance is also respectable. Bicycling magazine says Giant's upgrades for 2011 make the bike more stable and stiff, which helps improve the ride on a variety of terrain. "On descents, the Trance sliced through rocky singletrack and floated over all kinds of trail hazards -- from drops to logs and roots to larger, square-edge bumps -- even while braking," the editors write. They go on to call the Giant Trance X1 "one of the top all-around trail bikes we've tested."

Not everyone can afford to spend nearly $4,000 on a trail bike, but several other models are available. The Giant Trance X2 has cheaper drivetrain components, including Avid Elixir 5 brakes, while the Giant Trance X3 (MSRP: $2,200) comes with Avid Elixir 3 brakes and Shimano SLX derailleurs and shifters. The Giant Trance X2 received excellent reviews in the past, and initial reviews for the 2011 model are largely positive as well. BikeRadar.com says the overall ride is incredibly smooth, and the components aren't a huge trade-off over the pricier Giant Trance X1. However, editors would like to see a fork with more than 5 inches of travel. "It's heavier than the frame would suggest, though, and we wish Giant had gone with a longer-travel fork up front to exploit its potential for a more playful ride feel," says Guy Kesteven.

BikeRadar.com also recommends the Scott Genius 50 (MSRP: $2,650) for trail riders. This full-suspension mountain bike has an alloy frame, Rock Shox Revelation RL fork, SRAM X9/X7 group set and Avid Elixir 5 disc brakes. The suspension can be adjusted from nearly 6 inches to 3.75 inches in Traction Mode; it can also be locked out completely for level trails.

User reviews are scarce for this model, but Britain's BikeRadar.com says the 2011 model has seen a host of improvements, including a redesigned suspension system that offers a more comfortable ride. Reviewer Guy Kesteven likes the adjustable shock, which is especially helpful when climbing. "The ability to reduce and stiffen the rear travel (and manually reduce fork travel) or even lock the shocks out completely gives the Scott a real edge on long technical climbs," he says. The 28-pound weight is in range with other trail bikes, although most of its competitors only offer 5 inches of travel. However, the stock tires are slippery.

The Orange Five Pro (MSRP: $1,870 (frame only)) is another trail bike that earns several recommendations. Bicycling magazine names it one of the best trail bikes of the year, saying it is especially adept at downhill riding. The suspension is excellent -- smooth and plush over rough areas -- and the bike doesn't hesitate on climbs. "We set up the bike on the plush side to accentuate its thrill-seeking demeanor, and even though it felt like a downhill racer on the descents, the Five still pedaled well," the editors write. However, this British-built bike is not widely available in the U.S., although you can contact Zedsport, the American distributor, for a complete build kit.

Best all-mountain bikes for rugged terrain

All-mountain bikes are designed to handle rough and technical terrain. As a result, they are typically heavier and sturdier and have more travel (usually around 6 inches or more) than your average cross-country or trail-oriented mountain bike.

The Yeti 575 (MSRP: $3,100) receives the best reviews in this category, and it earns numerous recommendations for riders who regularly tackle rocky trails. It is available as a frame only (MSRP: $1,900) or with one of four build kits. The cheapest option, the Enduro build kit, comes with a Fox 32 F150 FIT suspension, SRAM X9/X7 crankset, rear derailleur and shifters and Avid Elixir 5 disc brakes. Five frame sizes are available, and the bike is covered by a five-year warranty.

Compared to previous models, the new Yeti 575 sports a stiffer frame and a more stable feel out on the trail, which earns it a Gear of the Year award from National Geographic Adventure. "The Colorado brand stiffened the back end of this 5.75-inch suspension bike significantly, which means that it holds its line better at higher speeds, corners with greater accuracy, and acts more like a thoroughbred that can read your mind instead of a wayward colt," says Steve Casimiro. Dirt Rag magazine agrees, saying the Yeti 575 offers great stability no matter what the terrain.

Even though the Yeti 575 only has 5.75 inches of travel, reviewers say it feels much more plush than you would expect. All-mountain bikes typically perform better on tough, rocky descents than climbs, but testers praise the bike's climbing prowess. "It's a scrappy climber and a scorching descender that feels at home on almost any trail no matter how buff or technical," says Bicycling magazine. Pedaling on the Yeti 575 never feels mushy, according to reviews, and the bike has excellent stability in tight corners. However, Bicycling magazine says the shock has a tendency to get hot, and it is possible to find lighter bikes in this price range. Some would also like to see a longer travel fork.

The Santa Cruz Heckler (MSRP: $1,965) is another top pick for mountainous terrain. Like the Yeti 575, the Santa Cruz Heckler can be sold as a frame only (MSRP: $1,000) or with one of several build kits. New riders can outfit the bike with reasonable components to keep costs in check, while advanced riders can select a more high-end kit. Four frame sizes are available, and the bike can be stocked with a wide variety of components from Shimano or SRAM. As a result, the price can vary greatly based on which components you select.

BikeRadar.com tests the Santa Cruz Heckler with the R AM build kit (MSRP: $2,200), which has a Shimano M773 SGS rear derailleur, Avid Elixir 5 disc brakes, Mavic XM 321 rims and Maxxis High Roller tires. Guy Kesteven says the Santa Cruz Heckler is naturally agile on the trail and responds quickly to slight steering direction. "This results in a feedback rich and very responsive bike that reacts noticeably to almost everything you do on it," he says. Reviewers also like the single-pivot 6-inch suspension, which is reliable and easy to maintain, although it can feel harsh when braking. Bicycling magazine reports no problems, however, when it comes to the bike's suspension. "Its time-tested suspension is great at keeping the bike planted and in control, especially over mid-to large-size hits," the editors write.

BikeRadar.com would like to see even more travel for those who regularly ride downhill. Editors also note some pedal bob on climbs, a typical problem for full-suspension mountain bikes. Bicycling magazine also notes that lower-end configurations can quickly add heft to the bike -- its test unit weighs over 31 pounds.

The Kona Cadabra (MSRP: $3,150) also has a good reputation among all-mountain bikes. It provides up to 6.3 inches of travel in a butted scandium frame. Components include mainly Shimano SLX, in addition to a Deore XT Shadow rear derailleur, adjustable Fox 32 Talas RL fork and Avid Elixir 5 disc brakes. The geometry has changed slightly for 2011, as Kona has lowered the bottom bracket and extended the top tube. Seven sizes are available, and the frame is covered by a limited lifetime warranty.

Reviews for the 2011 model have yet to hit the streets, but previous reviewers are very impressed with Kona's Magic Link suspension system, which maintains 4 inches of travel in Climbing Mode but bumps up to 6.3 inches for big hits and downhills. The Magic Link system works well, but it adds additional weight to the bike (the 2010 model weighed around 31 pounds for the 19-inch frame size, according to Outside magazine).

Best 29ers

The popularity of 29-inch mountain bikes (more commonly known as 29ers) is exploding. Compared to the 26-inch bikes discussed above, reviewers say 29ers have a variety of benefits. Men's Fitness interviews several professional mountain bikers who extol the benefits of 29-inch mountain bikes. According to these riders, larger wheels offer better traction, more control in turns and during descents, and a more comfortable ride than their 26-inch counterparts.

Twenty-niners are also becoming popular for cross-country (or XC) racing, where the larger wheels help riders speed up climbs while smoothing the ride on the descent. Most 29ers have suspension in the front only, although we are seeing more full-suspension 29ers. Since they have larger wheels, 29ers are usually heavier than comparable 26-inch bikes. They can also be a little less agile than smaller mountain bikes.

You can now find 29ers in a variety of price ranges, but reviewers say the KHS Tucson (MSRP: $1,250) strikes a good middle ground between price and performance. The hardtail aluminum frame is matched with a RST M29 fork with 3.15 inches of travel, a SRAM X7 rear derailleur, Truvativ FireX crankset and Bengal Helix hydraulic disc brakes. The frame comes in three sizes and is covered by a two-year warranty.

The KHS Tucson wins a group test of four affordable 29ers at Mountain Biking UK, which says the bike's value is hard to beat. "Despite its low price, the 29in-wheeled Tucson is a great performer, with user-friendly handling and a decent spec," says Mike Davis. It's also a good choice for new riders, experts say, since the geometry is less aggressive than that of many other 29ers. The ride is comfortable, and reviewers say speed demons will be more than happy on this mountain bike. "A profound joy going so fast on a bike so uncomplicated," says Roy Wallack at the Los Angeles Times. "Makes you wonder why you need the fancy stuff."

However, BikeRadar.com would like to see an 11-36 cassette instead of the current 11-34, which would offer slightly more gearing options -- "You're going to find yourself in the granny gear more often than you might like," says Mike Davis. BikeRadar.com also recommends upgrading the brakes, which are weak and feel "wooden."

For those who are more serious about XC racing, reviews point to the Scott Scale 29 Pro (MSRP: $2,800). This carbon-framed hardtail is outfitted with a Rock Shox Reba 29 RL fork with 4 inches of travel, SRAM X9/X7 group set, Avid Elixir 5 disc brakes and DT Swiss rims. It weighs in at a svelte 23.7 pounds, and Scott bills it as the lightest 29er on the market. Riders can choose from three frame sizes.

The components aren't top-end – Scott's top-of-the-line race bike costs nearly $6,500 -- but reviewers say the excellent carbon frame can be upgraded with better components as your skills improve. The big benefit to the Scott Scale 29 Pro, however, is its speed. "Stomping on the Pro's pedals produces a sensation akin to twisting the throttle on a ninja bike wide open -- there's speed here, and lots of it," say Bicycling magazine editors. Performance is especially notable on smooth, open trails, where the bike's speed is readily apparent. Users also rave about the value: "Killer deal! I've paid as much for bare frames this good," says one tester for Outside magazine.

However, Bicycling magazine says the ride can feel slightly harsh over big hits and rocks. Likewise, Outside magazine gives the Scott Scale 29 Pro a lower rating for its descending abilities due to the relatively rough ride.

Reviewers also recommend the Giant XTC 29er 1 (MSRP: $2,050) for those who want a big-wheeled bike for XC racing. The hardtail aluminum frame comes in four sizes, and is outfitted with a Fox 32 F29 RL-100 fork with 4 inches of travel. Components include Shimano SLX shifters and front derailleur, Shimano Deore XT Shadow rear derailleur, Shimano M505 hydraulic disc brakes and Maxxis Aspen tires.

Men's Journal says the Giant XTC 29er 1 is the best climber among six 29ers it tries out. Since it lacks suspension in the rear, the bike can speed up climbs. "It climbed better than any other hardtail I've ridden," says one tester. BikeRadar.com calls it one of the best hardtail 29ers it has judged. User reviews are also positive. At MTBR.com, numerous owners praise the bike's handling and overall speed. The large wheels power over obstacles on the trail, owners say. "This bike feels like a hardtail 26er when you ride it except for the fact that you can plow through rocks and ruts and carry more speed into turns," says one owner.

The Niner Jet 9 (MSRP: $1,850 (frame only)) is another top choice for aspiring XC racers. Unlike the KHS Tucson and Scott Scale 29 Pro, the Niner Jet 9 is a full-suspension race bike with 3.15 inches of travel. If you want a complete bike, Niner offers two build kits: the XT (MSRP: $2,680) with Shimano XT components or the SLX (MSRP: $2,300) with Shimano SLX. Both options come with a RockShox Reba XX Taper fork. It's important to note that the build-kit prices do not include the cost of the frame, which comes in four sizes. The frame is covered by a two-year warranty.

TwentyNineInches.com, a blog about 29ers, says the Niner Jet 9 excels on singletrack trails, and the Los Angeles Times praises its climbing performance. "With an instant reaction to pedaling input and minimal bob, it almost feels like a hardtail," says Roy Wallack. Pedaling is responsive and efficient enough to guarantee some serious speed, reviews say, and handling is very stable, even on rocky downhills. "The Jet 9 handled better than most of the 26ers we tested but never felt twitchy," says Outside magazine. Experts also recommend it for all-day endurance rides.

However, some think the Niner Jet 9 feels hefty for an XC bike. Although the weight varies based on which components you choose, some reviewers wish for a lightweight carbon frame. "If it lost a little weight, it'd be damn near perfect," says Outside. The Los Angeles Times also recommends upgrading to a 4-inch fork, rather than the stock 3.15-inch option.

Another option for those who want to customize their 29er is the Santa Cruz Tallboy (MSRP: $1,850 (frame only)). The full-suspension aluminum frame comes standard with a Float RP2 shock, and four build kits featuring Shimano or SRAM components. The frame, which is covered by a two-year warranty, comes in three sizes. The Tallboy is also available in a carbon frame (MSRP: $2,350) that is 1.5 pounds lighter than its aluminum sibling.

Reviewers say the Santa Cruz Tallboy is built for aggressive riders who like to go fast and long. "The Tallboy begs to be ridden hard, and it would be comfortable to do so all day," says Matt Pacocha at BikeRadar.com. The full-suspension frame smoothes the ride over obstacles, but with only 4 inches in the rear, the ride can get rough over large drops. Men's Journal tests the carbon-framed Santa Cruz Tallboy, and testers rave about how smoothly the large wheels power over obstacles. Fortunately, the 29-inch wheels don't decrease the bike's agility in tight, technical terrain. "These larger-than-average rollers cruise easily over rocks, roots, and small children, but never has a bike wearing them felt this agile and responsive," says Men's Journal, which names the Santa Cruz Tallboy the best 29er in its test of five mountain bikes.

The Santa Cruz Tallboy also earns excellent reviews at MTBR.com. Owners cite few downsides, although several riders note that the cost can be prohibitive -- especially if you go for the carbon frame. However, most reviewers say the price is well worth it. "The price tag was the only downside but, after a couple rides I realized it was money well spent," says one owner.

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